(Photo: Nicholas Badders/WCSN)
With ASU taking its bye week this Saturday, perhaps no unit will enjoy the mental break more than the Sun Devils’ special teams. Every other Saturday this fall has been a roller coaster for the third phase.
With a new kicker, new punter and slew of game-teetering plays, ASU’s special teams have been put through the emotional ringer in the season’s first half.
There has been the ugly: shanked punts, muffed punts, missed field goals, and a return touchdown against.
But there has also been elation, from a game-winning field goal to a successful surprise onside kick.
The only constant has been the weekly momentum-changing moments the unit has been responsible for.
“I think we have been too much up and down,” special teams coach Shawn Slocum said. “We’ve got some youthful inexperience in some key positions that have led to that. Our goal is to try to play consistently and not only make big plays but be consistent, not give up the big play.”
Wacky special teams are nothing new for Slocum. He was in charge of the Green Bay Packers’ kicking game from 2009-2014, a stretch that included Green Bay’s infamous muffed onside kick recovery in the 2014 NFC Championship Game.
That experience has paid dividends as the Sun Devils’ have acclimated to a freshman kicker and first-time starting punter.
“He has always got words of wisdom, what to do,” punter Michael Sleep-Dalton said. “He is helping me get a sense of what kicks to do in a game. Not putting anything too crazy on me and its situations like (last) weekend where I’m mishitting two balls but I was still okay, they still went in the right area.”
Sleep-Dalton’s year has epitomized the unit’s inconsistency. An injury to his dominant right leg hampered him against New Mexico State and San Diego State, forcing him to kick with his weaker left foot. He had used his off-leg to kick before, but never in such high stakes situations.
“It’s never really been a measurable kick, it’s always been like if I get a bad snap I can just roll to my left, or if you are rolling out that’s when it comes into play,” he said. “But not like it’s my dominant foot. Yeah I hit some bad balls the first three games, but for the most part I don’t think I was too bad.”
Like Sleep-Dalton, freshman place kicker Brandon Ruiz has taken some time to settle in to his new pressure-cooker role.
“It is a lot different than I thought,” Ruiz said. “I’ve already played half the away games so that is good; the away games are different for me. It’s the first time I’ve been out of state for a football game. But so far doing good.”
The Gilbert native was thrown into the fire immediately this fall, with each of his first four attempts coming from over 40 yards. Though he missed twice, Ruiz also set a new school record for longest first-career make, drilling a 52-yarder against NMSU.
“That’s what my mom always says, to get the long ones out of the way so you can worry about the short ones,” he said.
Ruiz shook off the early misses, looking like anything but a true freshman when going 3-for-3, executing an onside kick and converting a game-winning 41-yard kick in the Sun Devils’ upset win over Oregon.
“All of the coaches came up and said it was amazing to do this so early in the season,” Ruiz said. “This could be the only one of your college career so enjoy it.”
Entering the back half of its schedule, the Sun Devils special teams want to replicate the heights of the Oregon game. Finding more up-and-coming contributors could be crucial to doing so.
“One of the things is trying to identify some of the younger players that can help us in key areas,” Slocum said. “I think we are accomplishing that. And continuing to work on our continuity and the consistency.”
But, as with most things in the sport, cleaning up its execution is the biggest obstacle still facing the erratic group.
“Just fine tuning our skills and really preparing,” senior long snapper Mitch Fraboni said of what his unit focused on during the off week. “Not taking as many reps but making them quality reps.”